bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A Stone-cutter’s Literacy

Posted in Epigraphy, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 20 September, 2022

Feast your weary eyes on this elegant funerary slab. It is to be found on the walls below the porticos of what is known as the Old Cemetery in the Alpine city of Bressanone / Brixen, between the parish church of St Michael and the Cathedral.

Memorial to Johann Riepper (d. 1539) in the Cimitero Vecchio, Bressanone

It memorialises the early sixteenth-century canon of the Cathedral, Johann Riepper, for whom there may or may not exist a portrait made in his lifetime, now in St Louis, Missouri. The inscription’s rendition of Roman capitals is masterly, with its use of nestling letters — see, for instance, ‘epistolis’, at l. 5 of the main inscription — and even playful (note the use, at the centre of the ‘scroll’ at the top, of an alternate M, with its arching final upright). This, though, is not the earliest use of this alphabet in the cemetery: while it records the date of 1539, one of its neighbours announces the year 1506.

Memorial to Canon Nicholas (d. 1506) in the Cimitero Vecchio, Bressanone

Nor is that the earliest sign of engagement with Renaissance humanist lettering in the vicinity: on the other side of the Cathedral (the south side) lie its cloisters, which are remarkable both for their range of mainly fifteenth-century frescoes and for the fact that many of the images are explained in painted texts. Here is one of them, in gothic lettering except for the g with its sharp angled neck and separated bowls, a sign of what I dubbed in my 2019 monograph (discussing examples from England) engagement with ‘humanist g-reform’.

Painted text in the Cathedral Cloisters, Bressanone, dated ?1463

These signs of acquaintance with developing Renaissance fashions in lettering may not surprise us in this Tyrolean location, when we remember that for over a decade its bishop in the mid-fifteenth century was Nicholas of Cusa, from 1450 until his death in 1464. It is not, though, on a sense of accomplishment that I want to concentrate but on this memorial’s quite striking slip. It may already have caught your attention as it did mine when I stood before it a fortnight ago: look at the first word on the scroll above the deceased’s head. It is meant to read ‘Gloria’ but the stone-cutter has provided two Os and two Rs, combining each of them together as a monogram and overlapping the curves of the O. This is highly unusual — if you know of other examples, please do give details in a comment.

In the absence of parallels, it seems to me that something else is going: the stone-cutter originally chiselled ‘Glroia’ and then had to correct it. There is a small detail which encourages me in this assumption: notice the difference between the two forms of R, the first with a longer diagonal becoming a tail, the second more restrained. The inscription below shows that the first form was the preferred one. The second, it seems to me, has been designed to fit the space available.

We can take this further: this was not the production of a moment’s distraction. If the chisel had begun to form R and the head behind the hand which held the implement had immediately realised the mistake, there would have been other remedies: given the nestling letters provided below, the O could have been carved smaller and placed within the arms of the preceding L. It is common practice for swiftly noticed mistakes to be resolved as work continues. As a result, they tend to look rather different, as this example from San Fermo in Verona shows.

Inscription on the lintel of a door in the south aisle of the Upper Church of San Fermo, Verona, dated 1528 – note the word ‘fecit’

In this Brixen case, it is much more likely that the error was only noticed when the word or the whole scroll had been completed. Yet, to provide ‘Glroia’ is not a minor mistake: it defies the basic expectations of word-forms in European languages. We can assume the stone-cutter’s mother tongue was a form of German, but ‘glr’ would be as odd a combination in that language as it would be to someone brought up in a Romance tradition or trained in Latin. Was this the result of a dyslexic moment? Perhaps, but there is another explanation: that the stone-cutter was not reproducing familiar words but was, instead, chiselling letters without conscious understanding. In short, the task this artisan was set tested the limits of their literacy.

This suggests a difference between those working in stone and those working on parchment: scribes were expected to be literate to a level of being able to engage with the text they were reproducing and to correct it when they found errors. Of course, if they made mistakes themselves, they had ways of making it right — erasure and rewriting for instance, or marking deletion by points placed below each letter. Jeopardy was rather higher for a worker in stone, an unforgiving surface where error stubbornly remains or, at the very least, leaves its mark. What is more, the mason was presumably employed rather for an ability in rendering a portrait in stone than for any reputation for literate skills.

My suggestion, then, is that while this monument looks the part, it is, in terms of its lettering, the work of someone more skilled in carving than in writing. In societies where only the minority were literate, we should not expect all artisans required to work with letter-forms to be fully conversant with the grammar of language. This has an obvious and important implication: for the stone-cutter to produce the inscription, there must have been a template which was intended to be followed, as it were, to the letter. Like Caravaggio’s St Matthew, the stone-cutter had the assistance of a guiding hand. In other words, this memorial is not a solitary effort: we can imagine a cleric providing detailed instructions, down to a layout of the letters, the stone-cutter chisels away and then another set of eyes — perhaps the same cleric or a colleague — checks what has been done, and in this case notices an egregious error. Just imagine the conversations that then occurred around it.

I focus on this particular example because it suggests a wider pattern. I am certainly not suggesting that this stone-cutter was particularly unlearned. On the contrary, my hypothesis is that the person was as literate as many others working in stone. We can find other cases of errors being made which at times might be signs of inattention but at others are more likely to be because the mason was challenged by the requirement to render words in stone. That said, what is remarkable is not that, on this occasion, such an obvious error was made but that such mistakes were not made more often.


Postcard from Harvard VII: a master at work

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 9 May, 2018

The title for this post promises a single master but, with winning generosity, I am going to offer to you three masters.

The centrepiece of our discussion is Harvard’s MS. Typ. 447, an attractive little volume which, if it were a printed book, would be described as being in small chancery octavo format. It was designed to fit into a pocket, though why someone should want to carry its contents with them is a quandary. Its main text — though, as this description reveals, not its only one — is Palladius’s tract on agriculture, which one would imagine was hardly most people’s vademecum. What is unusual in this manuscript is that it is preceded by a devotional calendar, giving the saints’ days through the year. The combination of religious and pagan may strike us as curious but it has its logic: Palladius’s work is organised by the month, and the commissioner of the volume might have considered that his little book (we know it was a man) brought together different but complementary methods of framing time.

This is by no means the only element of interest to MS. Typ. 447. Its creator gives us both his name and that of the person for whom it was made, as well as the date and place of production. It was compiled in Verona and completed in 1460 (we can narrow that further by a reference to January of that year). The scribe introduces himself as Blasius de Saracenis, a citizen of Vicenza and son of Hieronymus; in modern scholarship, his name is sometimes vulgarised to Biagio Saraceni. What is notable is that the date of this manuscript makes Blasius’s work an early example of the italic bookhand, a style invented in the immediately preceding years. In particular, there are very few examples at this early date of one written at such a small module (the minims are no more than 1mm high).

The scribe most closely associated with the invention of italic is the second master we need to mention: Bartolomeo Sanvito. His stock is, at present, very high, in large part because of the detailed work done on him by the late Tilly de la Mare, carefully completed by Laura Nuvoloni. His skill is undoubted, and the beauty of many of his manuscripts remarkable, but we should not imagine he was a lone worker, creating a new script in solitary confinement. Even Poggio Bracciolini, the creator of humanist littera antiqua, was not experimenting alone, and his achievement was a revival and reform of an earlier bookhand. The creation of italic was arguably more revolutionary, a construction of a new vision of text on the page. To achieve this and, especially, to ensure it gained wider acceptance, what was surely required was not a single genius but team-work. In that équipe, Blasius had a significant role.

It is already known, thanks to de la Mare, that Blasius’s own innovations preceded those of Sanvito. It is likely that they knew each other as Blasius was in Sanvito’s hometown of Padua in the 1450s, until just before he made this manuscript. It is also clear that there were strong similarities between their practices. The best place to be able to observe this is here in the Houghton Library, for Harvard is the fortunate owner of three manuscripts written by Sanvito. One of those, a copy of Sallust which is MS. Richardson 17, dated by de la Mare and Nuvoloni to c. 1487-88. It is of nearly identical dimensions with MS. Typ. 447 (page size in the former: 136 x 90mm; in the latter: 138 x 93mm), and each is in an early binding, so they allow us to compare like with like.

Perhaps most notable is how both scribes present the title in painted capitals, with a change of colour for each line.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 10v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 17, fol. 1.

















Following Blasius’s opening title, he provides the colophon in blue, in a littera antiqua, but his main script and that of Sanvito’s bear share many characteristics. There is a difference: Sanvito’s bookhand looks more strident, an effect partly achieved by decreasing the distinction between thin and thick strokes which is on display in Blasius’s work. That should make us marvel at the skill with which Blasius wrote such tiny letters with frequent turns of the pen.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 17, fol. 138v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 13.
















It is not on such palaeographical details that I want to dwell. Instead, look at the layout each chooses to use. There is, certainly, an obvious similarity: the majority of each page is blank. That, as I have written before, is a basic co-ordinate of any respectable manuscript, though both take it further than many would. Blasius’s written space occupies only 36% of the page, while Sanvito shows even greater chutzpah, allowing exactly two-thirds of the page to be margins. Yet, there is a contrast between their mise-en-page. It is that Sanvito’s perhaps looks less familiar: he employs a markedly narrow space for the text. It has been suggested by that leading bibliographer, Paul Needham, that Sanvito’s practice might, in general, have been inspired by an interest in the golden ratio — that is, the idea that there is a particularly proportion that is pleasing to the eye, which in mathematics is signified by the letter phi and which equals 1.618. That is to say, the height would be 1.618 times the width. In fact, Sanvito in this manuscript provides something a little different: in the page (the dimensions of which I have already given) the written space is 90 x 45mm. Thus, the width of the text is half its height which is the width of the page which is two-thirds of height of page, with the result that the width of the text is a third of the height of the page.

At this point, I will put in a plea to all those cataloguing manuscripts. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is usual to record solely the size of the page and of the written space, but to fully appreciate the layout, it is important to provide the measurements of the margins too, so that the reader can appreciate the placing of the text-block on the page. This is done in the Italian tradition in a formula (using the recto): (upper margin + [height] + lower margin) x (inner margin + [width] + outer margin). Thus, in this formula, MS. Richardson 17 = (11 + [90] + 35) x (16 + 45 + 29)mm. Those figures give a clearer sense of what Sanvito is doing: the written width is set within margins where the inner is half of the outer, so the proportions across the page are 1:3:2. The height, meanwhile, is placed within margins which are, in total, half of its height, divided unequally to be approximately 1:3.

Let us return to Blasius’s manuscript and his arrangement of the text. In the formula, MS. Typ. 447 = (14 + [86] + 38) x (13 + [54] + 26)mm. You may notice that margins of the width have, as in MS. Richardson 17, an inner margin half the size of the outer. The arrangement of the height is also similar, with the lower margin nearly three times that of the upper. It might be noted in passing, that these proportions would have surprised earlier generations, where (as Erik Kwakkel has noted) it was more usual to have a lower margin only twice the size of the upper. What, though, is more significant for us is that, while Sanvito and Blasius share some co-ordinates of the page, Blasius does not have the height of the written space as double that of the total margin space above and below it. Instead, the proportions are closer to 1.65. More tellingly, the height of the written space to its width and the height of the page to the height of the written space approximate to 1.61 — that is to say, close to the golden ratio.

If all these numbers have made you call for a icepack to cool your head, let us draw this to its conclusion: while Sanvito and Blasius are working with a similar sense of the beautiful page, and perhaps developed that aesthetic together when both were in Padua in the 1450s, there is also a difference. It is Blasius who ensures his page echoes the golden ratio, while Sanvito in later years moves away from it to develop instead a layout based on the prime numbers of two, three and five.

This is not quite the end of the tale or of the fascination of MS. Typ. 447. It has an interesting later history, including being owned by the early twentieth-century Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in that other Cambridge, in England. When it was bought by Sydney Cockerell in 1917, it had lost the opening page of its text. He turned to a known calligrapher, Graily Hewitt, to provide a supply leaf.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 12, supply leaf by Graily Hewitt (1917).

Hewitt’s work is very accomplished, though it patently contrasts in style of script with that used by Blasius. Part of Hewitt’s skill is in providing the exact number of words required while following the ruling Blasius used in his work. One wonders whether, in accepting that layout as his guide, this third master of the page was conscious that he too was paying homage to the golden ratio.

Another humanist manuscript worth buying

Posted in Auctions by bonaelitterae on 19 June, 2010

Considering how the vast majority of manuscripts are now in institutional hands , it is exciting whenever a codex, previously unknown or unavailable, appears on the market. This year has already provided one discovery thanks to an auction house. Now, there is another, to be sold at Sotheby’s in London on 6th July.

Few may share the tingling sensation that courses through me when seeing the images of this book, but let me try to convince you of its interest.  The first folio, I will admit, is distracting — a case of what might be called creative vandalism with the ill-advised addition of an over-heavy and over-colourful border in the eighteenth century. It detracts from the original understated illumination often seen in humanist manuscripts, in this case in a style of interlace placed on a gold background typical of north-east Italy. In this there is little that it is unusual, nor is its content — Hegesippus, De Excidio Iudaeorum, copied — a matter of great surprise. Similarly, that the book is signed by its scribe does not make it stand out from the hundreds that are likewise revealing of their parentage, but the identity of this scribe is what makes this most interesting. It is not that he is well-known: ‘Petrus Lomer’ signs only two manuscripts in public libraries, one in Verona and one in Padua. But he was not a native of either of those cities, and rather one of the northern European scribes who mastered littera antiqua. The Sotheby’s catalogue rightly notes that the illumination to the manuscript in the Capitolare in Verona [MS. CCXXXIV (221)] is English in origin; in fact (pace the catalogue), so are the simpler initials in the manuscript, also in a capitular library, that of Padua, which is a copy of Salutati’s De Seculo et Religione [MS. C 78]. But we can not infer from this, as the catalogue does, that Mr Lomer was in fact an Englishman. In the manuscript in Verona, a copy of Giles of Rome’s popular speculum prinicipis, the De Regimine Principum, the scribe adds a table of contents, ending it with the words ‘Petrus Lomer de Colorna Deo gratias Ave Maria’. The place-name has been mistranscribed twice, and never satisfactorily explained – Orbis Latinus does not help, but the most likely explanation is that it refers to Cologne. Such an origin would fit well with both the sound of the scribe’s surname and the aspect of his script, an accomplished humanist bookhand which tends to add spiky elements to enhance its calligraphy.

So, there was a scribe, probably of German origin, who (we already knew) was at work in England. We might ask how his manuscripts got to Italy — and the copy of Giles of Rome provides something of an answer to that question, though it has not before been noticed. In that manuscript, some of the chapter headings are rubricated not by the main scribe but by another hand which I can identify as Tito Livio Frulovisi, who was secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the late 1430s (thus making the manuscript datable). His successor in that role was a humanist whom I have also had cause to mention before — Antonio Beccaria, translator of Plutarch, Athanasius and, indeed, Boccaccio. Beccaria spent about eight years or more in England and then returned to his hometown of Verona, where he became a member of the circle around Bishop Ermolao Barbaro. Is it too much to wonder whether Beccaria returned to Italy with one or both of the manuscripts that Lomer had copied in England?

Perhaps it is. My journeys in the crepuscular realm of manuscript provenance have taught me at least this: Ockham’s razor is a blunt instrument. The simple, the obvious, the logical is all too often just wrong. In the case of Lomer, the volume now on sale interestingly complicates the issue. As already mentioned, this manuscript was not illuminated in England: the catalogue suggests Padua, c. 1460 — while the dating is surely about right, the origin of the initials could equally be Verona. The dating is about twenty years later than the other two manuscripts:  if the initials are contemporaneous to the copying of the text, this would give us more information of the career of Lomer, suggesting he moved to Italy. If so, did he take his ‘English’ manuscripts with him? Or did he travel with Beccaria?

What, in fine, is exciting is that this does not answer questions but poses them. It complicates the information we have, and reminds us how little we know. The manuscript itself may answer some of the queries it sets: it would be interesting to know the quality of parchment used, which would help to ascertain its place of copying, and it would be immensely helpful to study the marginalia, the few examples of which displayed in the Sotheby’s catalogue enticingly suggest they are in a hand familiar to me. I say ‘would’ — the sale occurs while I am on honeymoon, and it is unlikely that I will be able to visit London before then. Nor do I think my future wife will be pleased if I make a bid for a manuscript that would mean re-mortgaging the house. So, will these mysteries be solved?